Fine Arts Column: In praise of coffee (and Bach)


The Ohio River Valley, that now-familiar locale in which our college careers are staged, now sits squarely in the midst of spring. Or, at the very least, this is my hope and prayer.

One of Steubenville’s special features as a college town is the way it prepares its unsuspecting four-year residents for the “real world” by violently vacillating between climates and weather patterns to simulate the merciless unpredictability of life. But hope, as the saying goes, springs eternal (no pun intended), and the reign of every White Witch must eventually give way to friendlier skies as we celebrate the splendor of our risen King.

This is that time of year when I find my usual order at Cupertinos changes from hot coffee to iced, a fitting yin to the yang of the suns renewed exuberance. Perhaps, in an ideal world, I would not consume the stuff so very often. (Perhaps, as well, a younger me would shake his head at my caffeinated existence, to which I would reply, Well, can you do this, you feckless whippersnapper?and promptly keel over from exhaustion.)

Regardless, I have come to develop a definite appreciation for coffee, a circumstance I no doubt share with a great many of my collegiate contemporaries. In fact, I would go so far as to say that college life would be incomplete without coffee.

This need not mean that every student need drink coffee. Much like the Sacrament of Holy Orders is to the Church, coffee can be necessary for college without being participated in by all.

But to those who protest their teetotalism with regards to coffee, I would advise not becoming too comfortable. You may one day have a ten-page paper due and very little wakefulness to spare and it is then that the thought of coffee will rise in your mind and you will have to make a choice that may change the course of your life forever.

The world of fine art has, unsurprisingly, not been silent on the topic of this glorious beverage. Life was not always so simple as it is in the 21st century, and nor was drinking coffee always viewed as a respectable pastime. Enter Johann Sebastian Bach (that prolific musical genius whose legacy has consumed a sizable portion of my studies in sacred music at this institution).

Bach embarked upon his musical career at a time when coffeehouses were associated with rowdiness and political conspiracy, and coffee itself eyed askance by many because of its Turkish origins.

Not so our North German friend. If ever there was a need to prove that Bach was ahead of his time (a laughable thought, I know), one need look no further than the fact that he wrote an entire cantata in praise of coffee. Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht(Be still, stop chattering), BWV 211, known colloquially as the Coffee Cantata, seems written to echo the sentiment of the modern age, but perhaps its message simply illustrates that in some ways the world as we know it is not so different from that of our forebears.

The work, which contains such glorious lines as If I couldn’t three times a day, be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee, in my anguish, I will turn into a shriveled-up roast goat, tells the story of conflict between a coffee-loving daughter named Lieschen and her father Schlendrian who is determined to make her stop drinking it.

At the end (following some annoyed recitative movements on the part of the father and a love song to coffee performed by the daughter), Schendrian offers Lieschen an ultimatum: either she stops drinking coffee or he wont find her a husband. Slyly, Lieschen plays along, promising to abstain from it, but secretly tells all her suitors that they must let her drink coffee if they want to be her husband.

We may never know precisely what kind of cultural impact Bachs comical cantata may have had in the city of Leipzig and beyond. Gradually, the world became as accustomed to coffee drinking as it has with other such frowned-upon practices, such as swing dancing and listening to ragtime.

Perhaps the point in all of this is that if you have a passion people look down upon, you should develop a masterful knowledge of baroque counterpoint and harmony and write a cantata about it. Or perhaps it simply shows us that the world will eventually come to its senses on most any matter.

As we approach the end of this academic year, God only knows what our futures may hold. But at the very least, perhaps they hold coffee. And in this there is hope enough to sustain our tired eyes through finals.

God bless you, my fellow Frannies. I raise my coffee mug to you in toast.

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